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  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
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  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • German: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Catalan: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
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  • Deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Audio commentary
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Featurette
  • Isolated music score
  • 1 Music video
  • Filmographies

Centre Stage

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 111 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

With the huge global success of big obnoxious dance ‘n’ romance films like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing no doubt firmly in mind, the producers of Center Stage probably thought they were assembling a can’t-fail product. After all, their film was going to take the excitement and drama of those dance movies, but it was going to take its subject matter more seriously, in the style of Alan Parker’s Fame. That intended seriousness is reflected by the choice of director - English expatriate Nicholas Hytner who, aside from having directed “serious art” such as The Madness Of King George, also has some serious credentials as an opera director. What could possibly go wrong?

Center Stage tells the story of a group of fresh-faced and driven young female ballet students, accepted into a course at the prestigious (but fictional) American Ballet Academy. We know it’s prestigious, because every dance rehearsal room appears to be on the 40th floor of a building with spectacular views of the bustling New York below. These girls are very, very determined - and very, very thin, their starvation-diet look apparently as much a part of being an aspiring artiste as their standard-issue Star Trek-calibre head-hugging hairdos. Into this heady environment comes a wide-eyed and determined (but not quite as thin) girl named Jody, whose life-long dream is to become a ballerina in the American Ballet Company. Trouble begins, though, when she is told that she has the “wrong body type” for ballet (in other words, she’s shaped like a human being, who, err, eats). Trouble continues when she begins a relationship with the truculent Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), a star dancer turned instructor who’s having a spot of personal rivalry with his old mentor Jonathan, who was unkind enough to have pinched his girlfriend some time in the past. Woven around all this are some sub-plots - including the anorexia morality tale you knew was coming, which is resolved with impossible speed and ease and with a minimum of tears.

And then there are the dance sequences. While most of the girls aspire to do classical ballet (and do it to perfection), Jody soon finds that her true calling is in contemporary dance, which for the purposes of this film is defined as ballet set to rock music with plenty of up-close-and-personal rubbing of body parts and general sexual innuendo. The two styles face off against each other in the film’s climactic dance sequences, which work exceptionally well on a visceral level (as indeed do the other contemporary dance segments in the film) with the contemporary performance parallelling the dancers’ personal lives in a manner best described as Dirty Dancing meets West Side Story. There’s a quick spot of Latin bump ‘n’ grind included early in the film (because it’s “in” at the moment, we’re guessing), but it’s of little consequence and seems superfluous.

Shot on Super 35 for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Center Stage initially plays so much like a Spelling teen soapie that one wonders just what purpose the extra-wide frame serves, aside from proving it’s a movie rather than a TV show. But the reason soon becomes apparent - the wide screen is there to serve the dance sequences, both those in classical ballet mode and the more contemporary works. All of these are photographed with pure skill and a constantly moving camera by Australian cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, and edited to perfection by Tariq Anwar. These sections of the film are genuinely exciting to watch, and it’s hard to recall any other recent dance-oriented film that’s pulled this element off so well.

But it’s the (melo)drama that makes up the bulk of the near two-hour running time, even if it’s really only there to serve the showcase dance sequences. And that drama is often dreadful, as is much of the acting - with the exception of Amanda Schull, who plays Jody with transparent innocence (and also happens to be one hell of a dancer). Most of the younger cast are very likely dancers first and actors second - and it shows, painfully, during some of the film’s more emotional scenes, though most navigate the more mundane parts of the script perfectly competently. Making up the “adult” cast are the likes of Peter Gallagher (a very experienced actor, recently seen in American Beauty), Donna Murphy and Debra Monk, all of whom seem slightly bemused by an increasingly clichéd and trite script. Sample dialogue time, folks:

Cooper (angry): “You’re still hanging on to all that personal shit.”

Jonathan (smugly): “I don’t need to hang on to anything.” (Dramatic pause) “I got the girl.”

Strangely, despite the script’s many obvious shortcomings - the stereotyping, the macho ballet rivalry (what??!), the cookie-cutter characters and situations and the strange concept that classical ballet is “evil” while contemporary dance is “good” - Center Stage manages to be an enjoyable enough couple of hours, and while we never really care about any of the characters, we’re never exactly bored either. But how could that be, you ask? Hasn’t our hapless reviewer just spent the better part of a thousand words painting a picture of a rather average slice of youth-oriented, angst-ridden drama? Well, yes. But look at this film as what it is - basically, an extended episode of Popstars in Panavision with a multi-million dollar budget - and you’ll find it to be perfectly unassuming brain-off entertainment.

Though produced by German company Global Entertainment (who have previously co-produced TV shows like Party Of Five with Columbia Tristar) the film’s title uses the American spelling of "center" - though the Australian packaging alters this to the British “centre”. Trivial, but true!

  Video
Contract

Correctly framed at 2.35:1, the video transfer of Center Stage is initially worrying - as the film’s opening credits roll, there’s a fairly noticeable amount of scratches, dust and other film damage clearly visible on the screen. All of this vanishes, though, as soon as the credits have finished, and colour saturation as well as image sharpness and clarity markedly improves - placing the blame squarely on the people that did the optical work for the opening titles. This is a rare problem with modern films, though it does happen more often than you’d expect.

For the remainder of the film, the transfer and MPEG compression work is right up there with the usual extremely high standards we’ve come to expect from Sony’s HD and DVD Centers. We can only hope that Sony’s magnificent encoder technology will one day become part of consumer DVD recording gear - these people don’t need massively high bitrates to encode a film cleanly, and their work remains unrivalled. The only places that cause minor encoding problems are sharp vertical line patterns like the blue stripes on a dorm mattress, and these are very minor problems indeed.

A fair amount of film grain can be seen during the rehearsal-room sequences, which are (by design) fairly bright with low contrast; possibly, higher-speed film was used for these sequences, which do look as though they were shot largely using available light. Everything else, though - especially the dance sequences - looks terrific.

  Audio
Contract

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is of excellent fidelity and clarity, though obviously the surrounds get minimal use during much of the dialogue-heavy scenes. The track is mastered at a fairly low level and doesn’t appear to use dynamic range compression, which means that most will have to crank this one up a little more than usual to deliver appropriately loud sound. The location dialogue during the film’s opening credits appears a little on the muffled side, but that soon rectifies itself. Aside from the use of music during dance sequences, this isn’t the world’s most vibrant soundtrack - but it does its job well.

  Extras
Contract

Billed as a “Collector’s Edition”, Columbia Tristar’s DVD of Center Stage provides fans of the film (and the curious) with a fairly decent set of extras. All menus except the scene selection screens and bottom-level special features screens are soundtracked by bits of George Fenton’s musical score. None of the menu screens are 16:9 enhanced.

Audio Commentary: Director Nicholas Hytner obviously takes this film a lot more seriously than everybody else, and spends more of his commentary time talking about the backgrounds of the actors and the very philosophy of the ballet world itself, giving surprisingly little time to the actual making of the film itself. He doesn’t always sound especially comfortable with the idea of doing a commentary, and there are frequent pauses where he’s obviously trying to figure out what to say next. To hear this quietly spoken Englishman positing theories about the percentage of gay men in the ballet world is a unique commentary experience, to say the least...!

Isolated Music Soundtrack: Always a welcome inclusion on any DVD, this music-only track incorporates both the many songs and other pieces of music used in the film, as well as George Fenton’s score itself, which is, unfortunately, a dreadfully sparse, ‘80s-influenced set of themes that often sound like the demo mode on an old Yamaha keyboard. Red Hot Chili Peppers fans, though, will be pleased to hear Higher Ground in its entirety in Dolby Digital 5.1 Big Audio.

Extended Dance Sequences: Three of the classical dance sequences - Swan Lake, Romeo And Juliet and Stars And Stripes shown in longer form, without any cuts away to the dramatic action. It’s a nice idea, but it would have been good to see some of the contemporary pieces included here as well. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 and none of these are 16:9 enhanced. All are also fairly brief - don’t expect full-scale dance productions here! Video quality is not of the same standard as that of the film itself.

Deleted Scenes: Two short deleted scenes of little consequence to the success of the film and obviously cut for pace. Quality is reasonable, though video is not 16:9 enhanced and audio is in mono.

Making-Of Featurette: A six-minute EPK-style promo for the film, using plenty of footage and offering a few interview snippets that provide a little (very little!) insight into the actors’ take on Center Stage, along with a bit of B-roll footage. This featurette is presented full-frame, with mono audio.

Music Video - I Wanna Be With You by Mandy Moore: A suitably saccharine ballad by US teenage pop moppet Mandy Moore, trying her hand at an adult contemporary ballad. The full-frame video is of excellent quality, as you’d expect from a modern music video; audio is Dolby Digital 2.0. This one, needless to say, is for Mandy fans only (and this reviewer is not one of them).

Theatrical Trailer: A tightly-edited trailer that makes Center Stage look a lot more exciting than it actually is! Presented full-frame with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in both English and German (yes, there is indeed a Guy With The Voice That Does Trailers in Germany as well…!)

Talent Profiles: Absolutely inexcusable. Factoids and “selected” filmographies are supplied for the director and all the “adult” cast members - but there’s absolutely no info here at all on most of the principal cast members like Amanda Schull or Ethan Stiefel, the very people we want to find out about! Nor is there any info on the other key people in Center Stage - choreographer Susan Stroman and her collaborators.

Dolby Digital “City” Trailer: Please, please, please, Columbia Tristar, please take note of yet another voice of protest, and use one of the many different Dolby Digital trailers that aren’t the “City” trailer. It was fun once, but that fun wore off years ago. And it’s still mastered at an audio level approximately fifteen hundred times louder than that of the film that follows it...!

  Overall  
Contract

A high-budget teen soap with capable direction and some stunning dance sequences that make up for the low-rent melodrama that surrounds them, Center Stage is, believe it or not, an anti-ballet-establishment movie - and while it does deliver plenty of entertainment value, it doesn’t hold up all that well to scrutiny. Columbia Tristar has lavished their DVD of the film with a solid set of extras that’ll make those who buy this disc very happy indeed. But if you’re wondering whether Center Stage is your kind of teen angst dance movie, take the rental option and see if you really click with a movie that is, ultimately, the St Elmo’s Fire of ballet.


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      And I quote...
    "...the St Elmo’s Fire of ballet..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Rom:
          Pioneer 103(s)
    • MPEG Card:
          Creative Encore DXR2
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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